Wouldn't it be great if you could call a home repair service, book an appointment, and be guaranteed they'd show up on time (and not within a four-hour window!), be courteous and respectful, and perform a reliable, professional job?
That's just part of the proposition offered to residential customers by Clockwork Home Services, franchisor of Benjamin Franklin Plumbing, One Hour Air Conditioning & Heating—and as of this summer, the Mr. Sparky brand for electrical services.
An additional selling point is knowing there's a company behind the technician and the truck that home owners can turn to if a problem arises. No more hard-to-find, fly-by-night, no-show contractors to contend with.
"We have a 100 percent money-back guarantee, no questions asked. If the franchisee won't take care of a problem, we will," says Rebecca Cassel, president of franchise operations at Clockwork in Sarasota, Fla.
"People associated with us have the desire to change the stereotypical view of the contracting industry today," says Cassel. "They have a desire to serve people and are looking to be the elite and dominant service provider in their area. It's not for everybody."
For independent contractors, Clockwork presents a chance to take advantage of brand recognition, systems, support, etc. "Contractors are starting to understand that banding together to help build a brand will help them survive into the future," she says.
It also offers an exit strategy. "When the business is run on a system, it's more attractive to outside investors," says Cassel, a former independent HVAC contractor herself. (She sold her business in 2001, two years after joining Clockwork.) Clockwork also has company-owned franchises, offering another option for selling the business.
Clockwork has big ambitions: to take the company public in 2007 and become the number-one national brand in the home services industry. Going public will provide the capital to grow, says Cassel. "We want to be a billion-dollar company by 2010. We want to be the dominant home services provider."
Clockwork Home Services was founded in 1998 and began franchising in 2001 with the Benjamin Franklin brand. Two years later, it franchised One Hour Air Conditioning & Heating. There are 111 Benjamin Franklin territories and 129 One Hour Air territories. Mr. Sparky franchises began selling in July, with about 20 expected to sell in the first month, says Cassel—adding to the four units Clockwork acquired in Atlanta when it bought the company.
Clockwork sells territories based on population of 250,000. Many franchisees operate multiple brands and/or territories from a single office location. The company's strategy is to focus on best practices within the home services industry, offering additional brands to meet as many home repair needs as possible—often with a single phone call to one of its multi-brand franchisees. Roofing may be the next horse in its growing stable.
Contractors and business owners also can join one of the four contractor affinity groups offered by SGI, Clockwork's Success Group International division (Plumbers' Success International, AirTime 500, Electricians' Success International, and Roofers' Success International). SGI has a training organization for members, as well as turnkey marketing programs, training for front-line people, and group buying power.
SGI membership also can be a step toward franchise conversion. "Some want to be independent, some want to be a franchisee, some want an exit strategy," says Cassel, who was vice president of operations for SGI before moving into her current position in late 1999. About 85 percent of franchisees are pre-existing heating, plumbing, and (now) electrical contractors, she says.
"We teach our technicians how to manage a business," says Cassel. "The more successful franchisees are the people who understand the business and have some industry background." And, she says, "It's nice to have a relationship before with them." That way, both sides can get to know one another before jumping in. In fact, Clockwork provides a two-year window for a franchisee to change their mind if it doesn't work out. "Our philosophy is we don't want anybody to fail," says Cassel.
One day Tab Hunter stopped in at his usual place to buy supplies for his plumbing, heating, and air conditioning business in Nashville. That visit changed him.
"I'd seen it 100 times, where plumbers and HVAC guys buy material. I've seen these guys in there, and they're withered and weathered and old. I looked at one of them one day—and I was quite younger than I am now—and I said, 'Johnny when are you going to retire?' He looked like he was 10 years past it. He looked at me and said 'Tab, retire? I'll work till I die.' It scared me to death. And I said, 'Not me.'"
About 18 months ago, Hunter converted from an independent contractor to a franchisee. He has two units: a Benjamin Franklin Plumbing and a One Hour Air Conditioning & Heating.
"What attracted me the most is that running a business, you feel like you're going it alone a lot of the time. What I saw inside the programs is the operational systems.
I'm an ops guy—I like systems, I like processes," he says. "The problem is, as the owner you're always trying to reinvent the wheel. When I looked at the systematic process they have in their franchises, it was perfect for me."
The results, as they say, have been dramatic: "We haven't grown prior to the franchise like we did in the last year and a half. Our business has set a record, each month, over the exact same month a year ago for 18 months straight now," he says.
Hunter says he knew a long time ago that he wanted to be a business owner, and not have a business owning him. "Now I have an operating, running machine that's so systematic I can plug in a GM from just about anywhere. Not only do I have operating systems that I can use to grow my business, now I can start to manage this business from above, instead of being tied up in the middle of it all the time."
Then there's the people factor, which is huge for Hunter. "[Clockwork] fits my values in customer service: the philosophy that the customer cannot lose. This is the way I ran my business. I believe in that," he says. "And in this industry we need more of that, quite frankly. That to me was icing on the cake."
A big part of customer service is the brands' on-time guarantee. "Our franchise is all about time—being the on-time system for the customer, which is a beautiful thing. As an independent, I never could figure that out. It was just trying to run guys all over a major city and getting there on time. They've got it down to a science."
Customers can choose an appointment time within an hour. "They can order a call between 8 and 9 a.m. or 5 and 6 p.m., and it's guaranteed. It's amazing, it really is. I had no clue to this before," says Hunter. "One of the first things we did was jump all over that."
Hunter had to re-jigger his operations to fit the franchise system. For this "ops guy," that was a pleasure. "Basically, it's plug-and play, turnkey. You go in and put it together," he says. "I liked that in California, Denver, anywhere else, they're doing it the same way. And that's the power of the franchise and the brand."
More than adding new people as he restructured the operation, it was a matter of "redefining hats," he says. "Their operational systems identify positions, their key roles, and responsibilities, and the operations manual is on how to do that part. That helped me tremendously." He calls this "another exclamation point on how important it was for me, the business owner, to become part of a franchise."
Meeting with his staff (now up to 36) to introduce them to the conversion plan, he was able to say, "'Here's how we're going to do it from here moving forward.' he says. They "embraced it with open arms—and they've been here to help me along the way. I believe the key to that is keeping them informed." He still holds monthly meetings every first Wednesday. "They know where we're going, what we're doing, and it's been great to update them to the franchise, what's next, and what's around the corner."
Being in a franchise system has also allowed him to prepare for the future. He has a successor in mind, and a plan in place. "In most cases, our business is driven by the person answering the call, who runs the call, and who does the accounting. If that's the owner, and it typically is, if you lose the owner, you lose the business," says Hunter. "And that's the beauty of a franchise, and why a franchise is part of my succession plan—because I can step away from it."
Now that he's able to manage from above, Hunter's plans include expansion into other, related fields. He has an electrical home service business and is interested in converting to the Mr. Sparky brand—"and whatever they come out with, because if their programs follow the same format, I'd take a look at any of them," he says.
"When you find something that amplifies your values and your beliefs toward that customer, but yet is to the power of 10 to what you can do personally, that motivates me," he says. "Fortunately I came across a franchise that to me was the ray of sunshine that I needed to say, 'Here's why you've been beating your head against a wall. Now you can stop.'"
Having an off-the-shelf system also was a great relief to Hunter: "Instead of all that weight and burden being on my shoulders to spearhead it, design it, implement it, and oversee it," he can rely on the system to run the business and start to "manage from above," he says.
Memorable first job: Apprentice plumber, digging ditches by hand
Professional tip: Listen carefully, digest the information, and then speak.
Key education: The best education is the life experiences received from growing a profitable multi-million dollar business from scratch.
Role model: Benjamin Franklin
Currently reading: The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell
Others say you are: Full of energy
Business news sources you regularly read: Newsweek, USA Today, Forbes (occasionally)
Favorite web sites (besides your own): I shop a lot online: Amazon, eBay, Neiman Marcus, etc.
Franchise systems (besides your own) that are creative: The fast food industry continues to develop technology that improves their efficiency of service to their customer and delivery of their products. I think that is very creative.
Favorite quote: "You cannot build a reputation on what you are going to do." (Henry Ford)
Best advice anyone ever gave you: Know your cost of doing business and charge the right price.
Best advice you ever gave anyone: Continuously surround yourself with the right people for the job. Train them, delegate, and then hold them accountable.
What you do to unwind: Boating with my wife and 3 daughters
Larry Rohrer's family has been in the plumbing and heating business since 1958. His father founded the business, he took it over, and his son, now president, has three boys of his own. Based in the Lancaster-Harrisburg area of south central Pennsylvania, Rohrer currently has four franchise territories in heating and air conditioning, and two in plumbing.
Rohrer, who says he's always been a planner and a visionary, has his sights set on 10 franchise territories, each with a Benjamin Franklin Plumbing and a One Hour Air Conditioning & Heating unit.
"As I see the home service business changing, I realize it's going to be very difficult for an independent down the road. I'm trying to secure a future for my family," he says. If any of his grandsons want to continue in the family business, the opportunity will be there. (See "Smooth Transitions" story in this issue).
"When I saw the opportunities with One Hour and Benjamin Franklin, it was exactly what my goal was. Why try to reinvent the wheel when I can have their support?" he says. "First of all, I liked what they stood for, because one of my goals was to be the most respected contractor in the community—and also be the employer of choice, meaning I treated my employees better than my competition would treat them."
Converting to a franchise has helped with recruiting, he says. "One of our selling points when we recruit is the career growth for that person. They can begin as a technician and end up as a general manager. We can show them how that can happen in as little as five years. It's very easy for us to recruit and train because there's a plan, there's a goal, and it's measured and managed."
One source of new recruits is referrals from employees, who get a bonus for bringing in someone who stays for six months. Another is radio, especially for technical employees. "We very seldom hire anybody with previous experience because it's too difficult to change their ways," says Rohrer. "We have a pretty intensive training program here. It takes us longer to change people's ways than to teach people new ways."
One reason is that many experienced contractors lack the people skills that he prizes (as does Clockwork). "We train our people that first we are trusted advisors, and what we do is 'fix the customer.' And then we get into what we actually do in the heating and air conditioning and plumbing world," he says. That often doesn't sit well with someone who has 20 years of fix-it skills—who really doesn't want to deal with customers, but would rather just come in and fix a machine.
Why convert from a successful, decades-old family business to a franchise? "First of all, I was looking for job security. Second, I was looking to be part of something that contributed to society. I've had that caring part of me, I guess. I was looking for respect, and I felt like in this kind of a world I would have the respect."
Also, he says, "I somehow or other came into an entrepreneurial bent, and this gave me an opportunity to be an entrepreneur and make things happen, rather than watch things happen. It's a combination of things that kept me in the business. I never looked at anything else, and I've never regretted that."
Then there's the future. "When the franchise opportunities came, I felt very relieved to know that I now could hand over a business to my family, and if something would happen to me they would have the support they needed to continue to grow the business—and not have to reinvent the wheel and go through some of the challenges that I had to being an independent," he says.
"I felt like the franchise would make that much simpler. If my son's three boys decide they want to be part of this, that's where the 10 territories or the 10 units come into play, and I would have places for them to be."
How's it working out in his third year? "So far, it's been exactly what I was hoping for. Our business is growing, our respect is growing. It's been a very positive conversion and positive experience."
Memorable first job: Between my junior and senior in high school, my father allowed me to completely plumb a new house. It gave me a lot of satisfaction to know that I could do it. That solidified my desire to continue on in the business. In my senior year, I started becoming goal-oriented and motivated to become a profitable business person.
Professional tip: I had a neighbor who was a very established businessman, probably 10 to 15 years my senior. I was probably in my mid-30s, the time you think you can lick the world. He got into a venture that was not his normal business and it was a failure. I asked him about it, and he said, "Larry, let me tell you something: Choose what it is you want to do and what you're good at and stay focused on it, and don't stray off the path." I think of that probably every day when I have a whim to try something else.
Key education: Positive role models, people I have respected. I watched them very closely and that shaped where I was going. And life's challenges in general, and being able to overcome them.
Role model(s): Mom and dad. Despite all the hardships of starting their own business, they made sure their children were well taken care of.
Currently reading: Business by the Book, by Larry Burkett; The Great Game of Business, by Jack Stack; Jack Welch's stuff, those kind of things.
Others say you are: Innovative, not afraid to change. I hardly let the dust settle till I'm making another change and trying to take us to a new level.
Business news sources you regularly read: USA Today, the Internet
Favorite web sites (besides your own): My home page is an NBC network affiliate TV station.
Franchise systems (besides your own) that are creative: A local one: Auntie Anne's Soft Pretzels. It's a farm-raised young lady who had a vision, and one thing led to another, and today they're a very strong franchise in this mid-Atlantic region. Also, the McDonald's, the Subways—I think they're doing a great job.
Favorite quote: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart; and lean not on your own understanding. And in all my ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct my paths." (Proverbs 3:5, 6) That's kind of my mission statement.
Best advice anyone ever gave you: Stay focused. Choose what I want to do. Don't stray.
Best advice you ever gave anyone: Ditto. Why are you trying to reinvent the wheel? You're doing well, just keep it going and become better at it.
Biggest project for the year: Achieve 20 percent growth. To do that we need to recruit, hire, train, and retain at least four to six employees. If I pull that off, everything else will fall into place. I try to do the same thing every year.
What you do to unwind: My wife and I enjoy vacationing. I enjoy gardening and reading. We spend a lot of time with our children and grandchildren, and that's very rewarding to me.
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